Estranged Parents and Boundaries
Members of estranged parents’ forums have a love-hate relationship with boundaries. They have frequent discussions about setting boundaries with their adult children, and write about the process with insight:
We must protect our inner self and boundaries are a method of protection. We may disappoint some people and they may get angry when we refuse to abide by what they expect, but it is most necessary. In the end you will probably be respected for saying no, or refusing to clean up after someone else.
But as soon as the topic turns to the boundaries set by their children, the tone of the conversation… changes.
when my EC tried this I said "i will not respond to any demands for boundaries from you . You are being verbally abusive to me". The convo was short.
This about-face comes from a couple of different places:
I’m the parent. I make the rules.
I used to be against the very word b-o-u-n-d-a-r-i-e-s, because my ED wanted to set boundaries for me!!!! Yeah, right. I refused to meet with her. I don’t think she liked that but in a way I was setting my boundary by saying, ‘You don’t tell me what to do, young lady. I'm your mother.’ She never mentioned it again and our estrangement went on for another year. LOL
Members talk at length about how they want respectful adult relationships with their grown children, how they want to be able to speak with them as equals--and then the child replies as an equal, and the members lose their ever-loving minds.
Kickback against the loss of status is part of it. All parents have difficulty settling into adult relationships with their children, and most children flail for a while as they settle into an adult relationship with their parents. Often the result is one in which their child graduates to full adulthood, but the parent remains half a step higher, as a sort of superadult. In healthy relationships, this can work well. The parent and child recognize one another as fellow adults, but there’s room for the natural imbalance of power that occurs when one person spends years small, helpless, and dependent on another person.
In unhealthy relationships, the parent keeps partial control of the child. They expect the child to operate as an adult within the child’s own sphere: The child supports herself, handles her own finances, and looks after home and family independently. However, the parent’s sphere engulfs the child’s sphere, so the parent can lean in and make changes, offer advice that the child must follow, make demands on the child’s time, require visits with the grandchildren, etc. It’s their right as a parent, and their role as a superadult.
The child can’t resist these demands without accusations of immaturity. As far as their parents are concerned, wiser people are meant to guide less wise people, and experienced people are meant to guide the inexperienced. Teenagers rebel because they’re young and stupid, but once they’ve learned the ways of the world, they’re supposed to settle down and stop their juvenile bucking against their betters. True maturity is found in graceful submission to powers greater than oneself. Children who refuse to recognize this are bratty, immature, proud, rebellious--even if they’re 48, a father of three, and head of the local Rotary Club.
So when your kid tells you you have to watch your mouth around the grandkids, you want nothing more than to paste them across their own spoiled mouth. Clearly you didn’t teach them enough respect when they were younger, but damned if you’re going to let them lord over you now.
But the loss of status is only part of it. The other part is that the parent doesn’t think of the child as having the same needs as the parent. The authoritarian mindset lays out the needs and desires that are appropriate to the role “parent,” and the needs and desires appropriate to the role “child.” As in all such dualities, the person in authority gets a great deal of leeway, and their subordinate is assigned a version of the human psyche that’s been pared down to fit neatly into their lesser role. Nor does a person who’s designated a “child” ever get to leave the role, even after they’ve graduated to the “parent” role in other areas of their lives. This mindset is wholly unconscious, which makes it difficult for parents caught in it to realize what they’re doing, much less understand why it’s causing trouble in their relationships with their children.
This mindset explains the extraordinary weirdness that popped up when a member posted a letter from her estranged daughter in which the daughter said the family had a history of not respecting children’s boundaries. The members interpreted her comment as referring to underaged children’s boundaries, and among their reactions were these comments:
Maybe ED doesn't realize what "respecting children's boundaries" is. Yes, it involves things like getting them appropriate toys and clothes, taking them to dancing lessons or gymnastics or other activities that the kids have an interest in, holding birthday parties for them, reading them bedtime stories, teaching them to drive, and all that nice stuff. But it also involves setting bedtimes, teaching them to brush their teeth, having age-appropriate chores for them to do, teaching them the difference between "I need" and "I want," setting rules like "no electronics until homework is done," learningto live within a budget and with consideration for other members of the family -- all that not-to-nice stuff.
The part that most infuriated me was the reference to not respecting the "boundaries of children" line. What exactly are the boundaries of children? (I'm not talking good touch/bad touch boundaries, and I don't think that is what she meant.) Are we expected as parents to do what our children - when they are children - tell us to do. Never say no, give them everything they want, have no expectations of them helping, caring, listening, learning…
Underaged children don’t have personal boundaries. They don’t need privacy, the right to choose their interests, or the right to have tastes that are different from their parents’; these things are so far from the members’ minds that the members don’t even bring them up to shoot them down. Whereas boundaries for adults are emotional, boundaries for children are practical. “Respecting children’s boundaries” means giving them the right things, assigning them the right chores, and teaching them the right life skills. Allowing children to set their own boundaries means letting children tell the parents what to do, and that only leads to anarchy.
There’s a coda: Adults set children’s boundaries for them in order to shape them into adults, and children who resist these boundaries are immature. (This is a twisting of what happens in healthy families, where parents set children’s rules for them.) Grown children are adults and get to set their own boundaries, but their parents are superadults, so when the grown child resists the boundaries the superadult sets for her, she’s being immature. Not even an adult, really--still a child, who’s doubly obliged to obey her parents. Faced with this rebellion, parents double down on their attempts to break down their child’s boundaries in order to prevent anarchy.
How dare you imply that I’m wrong?
All relationships have boundaries, but people usually don’t state them explicitly unless the other person has crossed the line. Therefore, openly stating a boundary implies that the other person has done something wrong, and members of estranged parents’ groups aren’t having that.
I don't like boundaries even though I know they are important in some instances, but when you have not consciously done anything I will have no one setting boundaries for me.
When my son and DIL gave me a list of 11 rules during the first month I was here, I was told these were my boundaries that they had come up with. They were very restrictive and insulting. I cried. I felt like I was a 5 year old child.
I can remember the first time I heard my DIL say she wanted to "set boundaries for us." It was during a counseling session that she told the counseler she thought we needed them. I said "boundaries??" those are for children that need to be sent to the corner for misbehaving."
(Note the detail in the first quote: Something doesn’t count as wrongdoing unless you did it intentionally.)
Love means no boundaries.
For people who grew up in enmeshed families, love feels like enmeshment, and enmeshment means no boundaries. When someone sets a boundary, it feels to the enmeshed person like the other person is saying, “You’re not good enough to have/do/see that.” Or “You’re not trustworthy enough for that.” Or even “You can’t do that because I don’t love you.”
This dynamic gets mixed up with the need to control (“You’ll make mistakes if I don’t help you!”), to assuage the parent’s anxiety (“How am I supposed to know you’re all right if I can’t check up on you?”), to assert parental authority (“Are you trying to hide something from me?”), and to make the other person meet the person’s emotional needs (“Don’t you need me? Don’t you value me?”).
Here I have to end my discussion of enmeshment. It’s not a dynamic I’m aware enough to analyze, so I can’t do it justice.
And it deserves to be done justice. Enmeshment is a huge, a massive, cause of estrangement. It’s central to understanding estranged parents’ forums, because between the two poles of bad parenting--enmeshed and neglectful--forum members are almost entirely on the enmeshed end. If you’re interested in learning more about how enmeshed families react to boundaries… someday I’ll have an article recommendation here, but right now, try Google.
Faced with boundaries, members of estranged parents’ forums retreat into a series of defenses:
You’re doing it wrong.
When someone sets a boundary with you, it can hurt. It stings to be told you’ve done something wrong, and the guilt at realizing you hurt or offended someone isn’t always easy to bear. If you enjoyed your pre-boundary privileges, having them taken away can add to the pain.
Members’ reaction to the pain is to say, “You’re doing it wrong.”
You didn’t think the boundary through enough:
To me, setting boundaries should not be as a reaction to anger at what is going on. It should be a well thought out response after clearly assessing the situation from both sides. Boundaries can be far too easily use to inflict pain just as our EK's are using it - that to me is when it becomes a barrier.
You didn’t negotiate your boundaries with me:
[I]f it were me I would want them to go to family counseling with me and have them sit in the hot seat and look in a family counsellors face and clarify what exactly is the problem. That they don't get to dictate terms but have to work with how you feel as well for it to be a mutually healthy relationship. Other than that I I would not bow down to a one sided eggshell relationship.
Real boundaries don’t result in permanent estrangement:
Boundaries are not the same as estrangement or "no contact"
If the boundaries have been well stated and not respected then estrangement and/or no contact is understandable but for a short time, then there should be dialogue - reflection, discussion and mutual resolution
It would seem that a lot of our Adult Offspring have just sprung right past the boundaries part and right into the no contact/estrangement place.
On and on, down to “You don’t have the right to set boundaries with me because I’m the parent” and “People shouldn’t have boundaries at all.” No matter what the boundary is, or how kindly the adult child states it, if the boundary causes the parent pain then the child did it wrong.
It’s all about control.
If the child’s boundary wasn’t set legitimately, then it isn’t a boundary at all. And if it isn’t a boundary, then what is it?
These so called boundaries are nothing more than an exercise in control, if not outright bullying tactics.
I don't see her [boundary-setting] letter as a list of complaints. I see it as a demonstration of her superpowers. I hear her saying "I'm in control, dammit, so you better get that through your head."
It’s a show of control.
And it’s not a show of the child’s legitimate control over her own time, her own home, or her own children. It’s a show of the child’s control over her parents. The shoe is on the other foot, and the child, who was controlled all her childhood, is enjoying controlling her controllers. It’s the authoritarian follower’s ultimate nightmare: that the subjects will rise against the rulers and do unto others what was done unto them.
It’s a sign of the child’s psychological problems.
What estranged adult children call boundary-setting isn’t boundary-setting at all, but a cover for unhealthy coping strategies:
I think that estranging someone is seen by the EC as setting a boundary on something that is intolerable to them. [....] They would rather cut off from what they project onto the situation-whether it fits with reality or not. The would call it setting boundaries if they have been to treatment and have told some awful story to an unsuspecting therapist. [....] I imagine trying to keep initiating contact would be seen as some kind of poor boundary by a parent and further proof of how horrid and "out of it" they are. I can imagine my son saying..."oh my therapist advised me to have no contact for my mental health and there they go being inappropriate and not paying attention to my boundaries!"
What’s striking about this quote is that the member has an accurate understanding of the adult child’s perspective--I mean she nails it, four-point landing, 100% correct--and she still manages to dismiss it. She even manages to imply that “setting a boundary on something that’s intolerable to [you]” is sick. The same member elsewhere recommended “[c]ooling off periods,boundaries and necessary family treatment” as an alternative to estrangement, and talked about her own need to strengthen her boundaries when dealing with her adult children, so she understood boundaries well. She simply didn’t see them as legitimate expressions of needs when they were set by adult children.
Which is, in the end, where members of estranged parents’ forums land when their children set boundaries. Boundaries the parents set are necessary; boundaries the children set are meant to hurt and control, to challenge the parents’ authority, to act as a thin cover for whatever misguided or delusional idea the child believes. Obeying them will only play into the child’s hands. The parent’s best bet is, as always, to use their years of experience to guide them, and hope their child matures enough to someday understand.
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